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Top Bernie Sanders 2016 adviser accused of forcibly kissing subordinate

Robert Becker, seen here in 2012, oversaw Bernie Sanders’ Iowa campaign in 2016, then helped lead his efforts in Michigan, California, and New York as deputy national field director. | Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

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The claim is the latest complaint about a hostile environment for women on the campaign. Robert Becker denied wrongdoing.

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On the final night of the Democratic National Convention in July of 2016, Bernie Sanders’ staffers went out to a Mediterranean restaurant and hookah bar in Center City Philadelphia to celebrate and mourn the end of the campaign.

Sitting at the bar sometime after midnight, convention floor leader Robert Becker—who oversaw Sanders’ Iowa campaign, then helped lead his efforts in Michigan, California, and New York as deputy national field director—began talking with a female staffer who had worked under him along with her boyfriend.

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Becker, now 50 years old, told the 20-something woman that he had always wanted to have sex with her and made a reference to riding his “pole,” according to the woman and three other people who witnessed what happened or were told about it shortly afterward by people who did. Later in the night, Becker approached the woman and abruptly grabbed her wrists. Then he moved his hands to her head and forcibly kissed her, putting his tongue in her mouth as he held her, the woman and other sources said.

The woman did not formally report the incident at the time because the campaign was over. But over the past several months, Becker, who is not on Sanders’ payroll, has been calling potential staffers and traveling to early primary states to prepare for another presidential run—activities that Sanders’ top aides did not endorse, but did not disavow, either.

Among those whom Becker contacted was the woman who says he assaulted her. The entreaty prompted her to step forward to tell senior Sanders advisers, including 2016 campaign manager Jeff Weaver, about what happened to her.

Becker continued making plans for 2020, however, and attracted press attention for a trip to South Carolina in mid-December to recruit campaign staffers for Sanders.

“Candidates who allow people like Robert Becker to lead their organizations shouldn’t earn the highest office in our government,” said the woman, who was granted anonymity because she feared retaliation from supporters of Sanders and Becker, who has a loyal following of his own.

“It just really sucks because no one ever held him accountable and he kept pushing and pushing and seeing how much he could get away with. This can’t happen in 2020. You can’t run for President of the United States unless you acknowledge that every campaign demands a safe work environment for every employee and volunteer.”

In a statement responding to the alleged incident and other claims of inappropriate behavior during the 2016 campaign, Becker wrote that “I categorically deny these allegations of improper and unprofessional conduct.” The alleged assault, he wrote, is “at odds with my recollection of a late evening filled with many hugs and kisses and tears and conversations about what’s next.”

Briefed on the allegation, Friends of Bernie Sanders, the senator’s principal campaign committee, said in a statement that “Robert Becker would not be a part of any future campaigns.” The campaign added: “To be clear: no one who committed sexual harassment in 2016 would be back if there were a 2020 campaign,“ and described Becker’s conduct as “deplorable and fundamentally unacceptable.”

As Sanders openly explores a second presidential bid, dozens of women and men who worked on the first campaign signed a letter requesting a meeting with Sanders and his leadership team “to discuss the issue of sexual violence and harassment on the 2016 campaign, for the purpose of planning to mitigate the issue in the upcoming presidential cycle,” as POLITICO reported. Others spoke about their experiences to The New York Times. At least two of the sources who complained about Becker’s conduct for this story signed the letter sent to Sanders last week.

The allegations have put Sanders on the defensive as he makes steps toward a second White House run. The upcoming 2020 primary will be the first presidential contest since the rise of the #MeToo movement, which has brought new attention and activism to issues of harassment, assault and workplace misconduct. The accusations could complicate Sanders’ efforts to hire talented female staffers, and hurt his standing among young progressive women.

“There was lots of bros protecting bros, to the point that now there is a conversation among female alumni of not working on this campaign again,” said one former campaign staffer.

Jeff Weaver

Sanders, in an interview with CNN last week, apologized “to any woman who felt that she was not treated appropriately, and of course if I run, we will do better next time.” He said he was not aware of the allegations since “I was little bit busy running around the country trying to make the case”—a comment that struck several former female staffers as flip.

Asked about the alleged assault, Weaver, Sanders’ top aide, said that “without getting into the specifics of an incident where the woman involved has not given me express permission to speak, I only became aware recently.” Weaver said he believed the allegation was credible.

More than a half-dozen staffers who worked with Becker over the course of the 2016 campaign outlined a pattern of other inappropriate behavior or poor management.

According to two of those aides who witnessed his behavior, when Becker received resumes for potential female hires, he would look them up on Facebook and appraise their attractiveness. Occasionally, he would call over a male staffer to join him in ogling.

“During the process of routine background checks being conducted, I would occasionally be asked to review potentially questionable or damaging social media posts of potential hires,” Becker said in his statement. “My singular concern during this entire process was to assess whether an individual would be an outstanding political organizer—no other factors played into our hiring decisions.”

In another instance, Becker became aware that a volunteer and staffer illicitly looked at and took pictures of personal nude photographs stored on their superior’s computer, which was left in the office. The volunteer later showed the photos of the woman to her subordinates at a bar, according to the volunteer and the person who reported him.

Though Becker dismissed the volunteer and said he blocked the staffer from getting hired in another state, he urged the victim not to escalate the matter. The woman said Becker told her he would notify the national campaign of the incident. Becker said he did so — though he could not recall if it was verbally or in writing — but the Sanders campaign said he did not.

Regardless, no one ever followed up with the woman.

“At the time, I was afraid of retaliation by the perpetrator, and was being advised [by Becker] not to rock the boat,” said the woman, who was granted anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the incident. “I’m glad to see more conversation around what should and shouldn’t be tolerated in the campaign workplace….However, I feel strongly that more thorough HR procedures should have been followed and hope higher standards are set for 2020.”

Becker, who referred to the incident as a matter of “stolen data,” recalled that a “volunteer stole personal data from one of our employees and threatened to publish private information in a way we construed as blackmail.” He added that “[o]ur top immediate priorities were to investigate and banish the thief, recover the stolen materials and protect our employee from further humiliation.”

Becker also oversaw a pair of employees in Iowa and Illinois who lodged a federal discrimination complaint against the campaign that resulted in a previously undisclosed $ 30,000 settlement, according to a copy of the agreement viewed by POLITICO. The former staffers are still restricted from talking about the underlying accusations, but two sources with knowledge of the complaint said that Becker was a central target of the claim.

Tom Steyer

Becker said that “we did dismiss [the two employees] for disruptive behavior in the workplace at the request of our Illinois state director. They were not happy with their dismissal. I stand by our decision to dismiss them.”

Weaver strongly disagreed with that assessment. “Robert Becker is not working for the campaign. He is not an agent of the campaign and his comments were not made on behalf of, or authorized by, the campaign,” he said. “On behalf of the campaign, we respect the work [the employees] did for the campaign.”

Top advisers to Sanders have taken steps to address the complaints about the 2016 campaign. They’re working to set up a meeting between Sanders and the signees of the letter alleging harassment on the campaign. And they implemented a new harassment policy during the senator’s 2018 Senate campaign to include mandatory training and a hotline for reporting complaints.

But other former Sanders staffers were more reluctant to acknowledge problems, including several who leaped to Becker’s defense.

After being briefed on the allegations, Sarah Scanlon, the national LGBTQ outreach director and Arkansas state director for Sanders’ 2016 campaign, said that “it is clear that the effort to attack Becker is a concerted effort to kneecap a potential Sanders campaign. It is unfortunate. We should be standing together against our common enemy instead of continuing to tear each other down.”

Sarah Bacon, who handled human resources for Sanders in Iowa during 2016, also defended Becker, her former boss. In the days before this story was published, she contacted many former Iowa staffers sign a letter asserting that “the allegations being leveled against [Becker] are outrageous and categorically not true.” Ultimately, five others joined her on the letter.

But some of the signees said they were unaware of the alleged assault at the Democratic convention when they signed the document—including Bacon herself. Upon hearing the allegation, she said she was not with Becker that night but that “I could not imagine Robert Becker doing that.” She added that the letter “addressed the things that we can speak to.”

Pete D’Alessandro, the campaign coordinator for Sanders’ 2016 Iowa campaign, also signed the letter. But D’Alessandro, who said he’s known Becker for two decades, reacted differently when he learned about the alleged assault.

“I am of the belief that you believe victims,” he said, emphasizing that he was not aware of the most serious accusation when he signed the letter. “Victims get to make the allegations when they want to. I don’t like the argument that this seems like weird timing. Victims get to tell their truth when they want to tell it.”

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